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My Pathway to Porsche

THERE ARE MOMENTS IN LIFE that you always remember. Graduation, prom, university acceptance, job offers, marriage, the birth of your children. For a car enthusiast, picking up their car is right up there in that list of moments. You just don’t forget.

I still recall perfectly when the dealer gave me the keys and my copy of the signed paperwork. I hopped into my car for the first time at its storage facility, and turned the key with my left hand, counteracting muscle memory. The engine roaring to life behind the driver’s seat felt surreal.

These sensations were fresh. I had bought the car without a test drive, due to blizzard conditions in the weeks leading up to my scheduled pick up.

The clutch was heavy, way heavier than any car I had ever driven up to that point, but communicative and easy to modulate. Pulling out of the facility and onto the open road, I gave it some gas and the power surge from the six-cylinder boxer engine didn’t disappoint, nor did the accompanying crescendo of an engine note, distinct to me as I’ve never driven a boxer-engine car until then. As I approached the highway on-ramp, I was able to rev-match my downshift into third gear within about 100 RPM, not typical of my capability especially having had no previous seat time. The accomplishment of that shift, coupled with the dynamic balance of the suspension going into the 270-degree on-ramp corner I just tossed it into, reminded me of the automotive journalists’ word choice of “telepathic” when describing car control. It’s not actually true, but a machine that can take your input and generate the exact desired output creates such an illusion, especially in this analogue package. This car, now my car, was built to generate these sensations — like a sports car from Porsche is expected to.

Porsche, being the prolific sports car brand it is, has certainly impacted many a car lover’s early development. It becomes somewhat curious as I write this to admit, I wasn’t a Porsche fan when young. I knew the brand, of course, and heard drivers raving over how great they are. But the love for Porsche and its iconic “flattened beetle” shape turned out to be a bit of an acquired taste for me.

“The 996 delivers the perfect dosage of balance for what I need at this point in my life. I savour every drive — big or small, epic or mundane, solo journey or family outing.”

So how did I go from a non-believer to a 911 fan?

My earliest exposure to vehicle performance was in fifth grade, when my dad came home one day in a Burgundy Rot E30 BMW 325i coupe as our new-to-us family car. Weekend family outings in the little Bavarian machine gave me my earliest conceptualization of torque, pressing me against the seat back whenever my dad decided to give it a boot. It’s left me with respect for BMWs ever since. By my university days, I was studying mechanical engineering, helping out with suspension design on the school’s off-roader racing team, and exploring high-performance driving events (more commonly called track days). My spare moments were often spent on automotive forums, looking for the next deal on car parts, meeting up with car enthusiasts to do photoshoots at multi-storey parking structures, and refining the finer art of car control.

Seems like a great recipe for developing a Porsche lover, right? Yet at the time, I was more interested in track-tuned BMWs and Hondas. The Porsche brand was an enigma to me.

I learnt about Ferdinand Porsche bringing the Beetle to life in one of my very first engineering design classes, and I knew the company’s sports cars, including the 911, eventually grew from that design. I thought it was odd for Dr. Porsche, with all his engineering prowess, to decide to build a sports car legacy based on a car with its engine in the “wrong” place. How good could their cars possibly be, given the number of dentists and accountants wrapping these around trees? A sentiment ingrained in me thanks to Jeremy Clarkson. Adding to that Porsche’s “no substitute” image of prestige and prohibitive costs, to an undergrad engineering student, any thoughts of even coming near a Porsche seemed to be nothing but a pipe dream, until I was finally exposed to one.

The opportunity came in the form of a ride in my friend’s 996 Carrera at a track day. Sinking into the passenger seat of his car, the first thing I noticed was the low seating position. The seats were normal-looking non-buckets (comfort seats, as I now know). I doubted how supportive they could be during a hot lap, and was surprised I stayed relatively in place.

The car was upgraded with a good set of coil-overs, sway bars and suspension links to adjust geometry, and some grippy R-compound tires wrapped around stock wheels. The boxer six roared as we devoured corner after corner at Shannonville Motorsport Park. The balance, and unique butt-swinging weight shift, was unlike anything I’ve experienced before. To boot, the trip back to town was smooth, quick and very stable. Two and a half hours on the highway, and I hopped out with almost no fatigue. It left an impression.

“Telepathic…a machine that can take your input and generate the exact desired output creates such an illusion.”

From that day on, I found myself reading a lot more about the origins and history of the Porsche brand. I even picked up a Porsche 911 buyers guide, just to learn more about the background history of the iconic sports car and the particular quirks and differences in each of its generations.

The brand knowledge began to breed my admiration towards Porsche’s philosophy and design. The one quote that resonated most was from Ferry Porsche, “I looked around and could not find quite the car I dreamed of, so I decided to build it myself.”

Porsche’s products are about building and constantly improving upon the car they dreamed up. Through persistent engineering excellence, what they produced ended up becoming “the car of dreams” to many who strived to own one.

My cue to strive came when I realized the need for a more refined driving experience than my track-ready Civic Si. With rough suspension and loud exhaust, the track-focused street-car build was lovely, but became a nuisance to drive anywhere but on an enclosed road course. The pain literally doubles if you tweak your back getting out of a racing bucket seat at the office parking lot.

A 911, I rationalized, would be a great replacement — relatively comfortable to use, daily-drivable in the summer, and still able to handle the occasional sporting drive or track visit. It would be more practical than an MR sports car or a roadster, as the 911 technically had two jump seats that may be used in a pinch. I couldn’t have guessed that two child seats in the back would become a necessity! My focus was on affordability, value for money and creature comforts, so the early water-cooled cars from 996 to 997.1 generations were my main focus. A quick browse on AutoTrader and Kijiji revealed that 997s and the top-shelf GT cars and Turbos were too far out of reach, but there were a number of 996s in C2, C4 and C4S trims that still seemed attainable.

Amongst these choices, one particular ad stuck out — it was a Basalt Black 996.2 Carrera with a factory aero kit, upgraded big brakes, modified suspension and a set of very nice-looking Volk Racing TE37 forged wheels tugging at my heartstrings. But the main reason it stuck out was because this was the same car I had rode in for the hot laps at the track all those years ago. The previous owner had further upgraded the car with high-quality, track-friendly parts before ultimately selling it. Either due to the extent of modifications or the disdain of purists towards 996s, the car was miraculously still for sale on the lot after a year. A note here to thank all purists for hating fried eggs, it has made the 996 a much more compelling value proposition. A deal was struck with the carrying dealership the same week, and I brought the car home once weather allowed, just as I had described at the start.

Since then, almost 30,000 kilometres have been added to the clock. The more I’ve used it, the more I’ve grown to love the way it drives. Beyond what the previous owner had done, I have changed the wheels to three-piece wheels with polished dish Work Brombachers, installed a smaller-diameter flat-bottomed steering wheel, a 997 Turbo shift knob, a fresh set of Continental tires, and had the suspension refreshed.

From spring to late fall, I try to drive the car whenever I can. On a nice day I, of course, take it for a drive on the back roads, but I’m also not afraid to use it for weekend family trips and use the rear wing as a picnic table. At Costco, I load up the frunk and rear-seat footwells to the brim with groceries. Sometimes I take it to work, both to the office and site. Galvanic action, low ground clearance and high cost of winter tires still deter me, but I am not entirely opposed to using the 996 in winter in the future if I get over those concerns.

Looking back, I never thought a Porsche could be a practical car, nor could it be within reach to a regular working-class guy. While I knew base 911s were not exotics, they were just cool cars to dream about. While still a misconception held by many, I now know this to be untrue.

If you ask me whether I’ve changed my views on Hondas and BMWs, the answer would be no. Most of my previous, current and future cars will share equal affection with the 996. That said, the 996 delivers the perfect dosage of balance for what I need at this point in my life. I savour every drive — big or small, epic or mundane, solo journey or family outing. It has been the sum of such experiences that build enthusiasts in all things automotive, and has certainly built me up to be a lover of all things Porsche. </>

Photos courtesy of Derek Cheung

Stay tuned to next month’s Provinz, a special theme issue dedicated to the 996 911. —Ed.

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